The gradual global increase in high stakes testing over the last few decades has exerted pressure on schools to act more like test prep cram programs. Ever-more harried teachers must teach to ever-evolving sets of standards and sufficiently “teach to the test” so that their school doesn’t come off badly in high stakes assessments. While society has a right to know how publicly funded schools are doing, the tools society uses—standards and testing—are such blunt instruments that they generally impede learning in order to measure it. That’s because too much memorizing and drilling bores students and puts them off the material, and too much time spent testing takes away from time spent teaching.
What is today’s teacher to do? Some have embraced technology to add some pizazz to their classroom. Others try to personalize their lessons one way or another. But it’s very difficult for teachers to personalize in the classroom, and they get little support when they try.
Following up on my essay about “Putting Content in Context for the Learner”, which suggested framing examples and practice questions in real world problems on topics that appeal to students in the classroom—and encouraging publishers to facilitate this in their textbooks, I’d like to suggest another engagement tool for the overworked teacher’s toolkit: something I call “Miracles and Mysteries.” It uses astounding facts and puzzles to create engagement hooks in what might otherwise seem dry content.
4 Principles of Engagement
There are four principles that cause particular curated facts and puzzles to be more engaging to students:
- Truth is greater than fiction.
- Everyone loves a good mystery.
- Most young people—especially secondary school students—have a touch of self-absorption. (No judgment there; it’s totally developmentally appropriate.) Things are more interesting when they’re about you (and your place in the universe).
- Icky things are fascinating.
Of course, individual results may vary, based on the subject matter or the students involved. But these principles can generally be relied upon to hook students into the material—so use them!
Wouldn’t it be great if a new course started with one or a few overarching mysteries, and then each lesson had a new fascinating nugget or two? Each lesson could work together like chapters in a book so that at the end, students felt they had a comprehensive understanding of a new, larger world.
High school physics courses often start off with scientific notation and significant figures. Blah. How dull. Physics contains the great secrets of the universe! Let’s get students hooked first, so they become motivated to learn the banal tools they’ll need in order to go further.
What if on the first day of science class your teacher said, “You are almost entirely empty space, with particles as far away from each other as Pluto from the sun. The only reason you don’t disintegrate, or fall through the floor like a ghost, is because of the forces of nature that govern atoms and molecules. By the end of this class, you will understand those forces.” Or how about, “Every element in the universe other than hydrogen and helium was forged in the heart of a star and disbursed through space when the star died, traveling for millions or billions of years until it found its way into, say, your hand. And the atoms in your right hand may well have come from a different star than the atoms in your left hand.”
The miracles of science, math and history are seldom taught in the classroom because teachers are so busy adhering to standards and grading homework that they have little time to plan interesting contextual hooks for every lesson. So I’d like to start, herewith, a resource library of Miracles and Mysteries for teachers to draw from and add to! Everyone is welcome to add their own tips and ideas. Bakpax staff and I will also continue to add to it over time.
Please help us make this resource library even better! You could contribute amazing new facts, help us source the existing material, or help correct any errata.
Physics and Astrophysics
- There’s a 10-billion-billion-billion liter cloud of alcohol in Sagittarius B, 26,000 light-years from Earth.
- BPM 37093, is the shrunken core of an old star about 50 light-years away in the constellation of Centaurus. It’s composed of carbon and oxygen. Astronomers estimate that, due to its crushing gravity, 90% of it has crystallized, turning it into a 10 billion-trillion-trillion carat It’s been nicknamed “Lucy” by astronomers after The Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
- While the Earth orbits around the Sun, the Sun itself is orbiting around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It takes the Sun 225 million years to perform a complete circuit of the galaxy. The last time the Sun was in its current position in the galaxy the super-continent Pangaea was starting to break apart and the first dinosaurs were appearing.
- Every element heavier than hydrogen and helium was created through fusion of smaller elements in the core of a star. In the words of Carl Sagan, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”
- It can take a photon 40,000 years to travel from the core of the sun to its surface, but only 8 minutes to travel the rest of the way to Earth.
- Over 99.9999999% of atoms are empty space.
- If you took out all the empty space in our atoms, the entire human race could fit in the volume of a sugar cube.
- It may be raining diamonds on Uranus and Neptune.
- The largest asteroid, Ceres, may contain more fresh water than does planet earth.
- A prominent theory in quantum physics posits that there are an infinite number of universes, each with a finite number of particles and hence a finite number of possible histories. Which means there are limitless copies of you and that everything that ever could have happened to you, good or bad, did actually happen in those other universes.
- If uncoiled and put end to end, all of the DNA from an average person’s body can reach Pluto from the sun and back 17 times.
- The human body carries as many as ten times more bacterial cells than human cells.
- An average person sheds 105 lbs of skin in one lifetime. Every hour, the body sheds around 600,000 particles of skin. It’s around 1.5 lbs a year, or about 105 pounds by the age of 70.
- Your skin completely replaces itself 900 times in an average lifetime.
- The simple act of hand-washing prevents infection close to 48% of the time.
- Your stomach lining entirely renews itself every four days. Your stomach digests food thanks to highly corrosive hydrochloric acid. This acid also attacks your stomach lining, which protects itself by secreting an alkali bicarbonate solution. The lining still needs to be replaced continually, and it entirely renews itself every four days.
- Two individuals share as much as 99.9% of the same genetic material and differ in only 0.1% of it.
- People share 7% of genetic material with the E.coli bacteria, 21% with worms, 90% with mice and 98% with chimpanzees.
- The period at the end of a sentence is the size of one thousand cell nuclei.
- An individual blood cell takes about 60 seconds to make a complete circuit of the body. Most people have about 5 liters of blood in their bodies and the average heart pumps about 70 ml of blood with each beat. A healthy heart beats around 70 times a minute. The amount of blood pumper per heart beat times the number of beats per minute yields 4.9 liters of blood. In other words, your heart pumps nearly all your blood around your body every minute.
- Garlic and onion both contain a mild toxin that can pass through cell membranes. If you rub some on your foot, within 60 minutes it will travel through your blood stream and into your taste buds, and you will be able to taste it.
- On one square inch of human skin there are 20 million microscopic creatures.
- The human brain takes in 11 million bits of information per second but is aware of only 50.
- Males produce one thousand sperm cells each second – 86 million each day.
- Humans share 50% of our DNA with a banana.
- Twenty five per cent of all of your bones are in your feet. There are 52 bones in your feet and ankles and 206 in your body overall.
- The average lavatory seat is much cleaner than the average toothbrush. That’s because your teeth are home to around 10,000 million bacteria per cm squared.
- Water can make reactive metals explode.
- Plants grow by using photosynthesis to turn sunshine into energy, and animals grow by eating plants (or other animals that eat plants). So everything we eat is processed sunshine.
- Stomach acid is strong enough to dissolve razor blades.
- Some metals – like sodium, potassium, lithium, rubidium and cesium – are so reactive that they instantly tarnish when exposed to air.
- Gold is the most non-reactive metal, and it never reacts with oxygen, which means it won’t tarnish or rust.
- If you heat a pan on high for some time and pour water drops in it, the drops just move around on the pan like mercury rather than evaporating. This happens because when the water hits the pan its outer surface evaporates so fast that it creates a layer of vapor below the water drop insulating it and stopping it from coming into direct contact with the pan. So, instead of boiling the water just rolls around.
- Antarctica has as much ice as the Atlantic Ocean has water.
- If you are on the equator, you are spinning around the center of the Earth at 1,000 miles per hour. If you’re a on one of the poles, though, you’re standing still (and turning in a circle).
- The earth (and everyone on it) is right now flying through space at 67,000 miles per hour, or over 100 times faster than a passenger airplane.
- The air in a single room has a mass over 100 pounds.
- The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone, which means that it used to be under water. It contains the fossilized skeletons of small marine creatures that once lived in warm ocean waters.
- It would take a full day to fly to the other side of the earth in a passenger plane. But if you were to drill a tunnel straight through the Earth and jump in, it would take you exactly 42 minutes and 12 seconds to get to the other side.
- A medium-sized cumulus cloud weighs about the same as 80 elephants.
- Under extreme high pressure, diamonds can be made from peanut butter.
- Astronauts cannot burp – there is no gravity to separate liquid from gas in their stomachs.
- Somewhere in the flicker of a badly tuned TV set is the background radiation from the Big Bang 13.4 billion years ago.
- Most of earth’s water molecules have never been drunk by another human, but almost every one has been drunk by a dinosaur and come out the other end.
- The Romans used human urine as mouthwash.
- Roman Emperor Gaius made his beloved horse a senator.
- After Pope Gregory IX associated cats with devil worship, cats were exterminated in droves in Europe. This sudden lack of cats led to the spread of disease because infected rats ran free. The most devastating of these diseases, the Bubonic Plague, killed 100 million people.
- The introduction of Europeans to the New World saw the Native American population drop from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900.
- Before the mid-19th century dentures were commonly made with teeth pulled from the mouths of dead soldiers.
- Civil War: one in seven Americans was “owned” by another American.
- More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other wars combined.
- George Crittenden was Confederate general in the Civil War. His brother Thomas was a general for the Union.
- During the American Civil War, Confederate major Albert Miller Lea was a officer at the Battle of Galvestonon New Year’s Day 1863. He joined a party boarding the Union ship Harriet Lane, where he found his son Edward Lea who had been mortally injured during the battle. His son died in his arms soon thereafter.
- In 1945 in Japan, a man named Tsutomo Yamagachi was on a business trip to Hiroshima when the atomic bomb went off there. He survived but his ear drums were ruptured and he was seriously burned. The next day he return home to Nagasaki where, soon after, he survived a second atomic bomb. He lived to be 93 years old.
What can you contribute to our library of classroom Miracles and Mysteries?